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May 2nd, 2012

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05:09 pm - Musings on "Gritty" Fantasy
After reading another post about the problems with the current fascination with rape, misogyny, similar vileness in modern "gritty" fantasy novels and TV shows, I remembered the only fantasy series I've read which had extensive depictions of gritty warfare, the protagonist was the leader of a 15th century mercenary company - Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle These books were exceedingly gritty – passages about being covered in gore, cold, hungry, and listening to the screams from the medical tent were not rare. The pre-modern warfare in these books was ugly and brutal. However, when rape was mentioned in the books, it was both clearly shown as a problem (in the sense of soldiers being out of control in ways that their commanders found problematic), and it was never portrayed in great detail. I found the third book of the series to rather weak, and wasn't as satisfied with the ending as I could have been, but I enjoyed it a great deal, and was never once tempted to throw any of the books across the room, unlike the time I read the first part of Martin's first Game of Thrones novel. I've attempted to read other similar novels and never get very far as a mixture of boredom and disgust sets in. I've complained about Martin's novels before, and they are far from alone (Here's a ludicrously self-indulgent rebuttal to the post I link to by R. Scott Bakker, who also writes "gritty" rape-filled fantasy novels). In thinking back on Gentle's Ash series, it occurred to me that that major difference is that Martin, Bakker, and similar authors are not simply attempting to write fantasy that's "grittier" or more brutal, they are making a conscious or unconscious decision that gritty realism not only must include large amounts of rape, misogyny, and racism, but that all of these must be described in extensive detail. These are not choices that I respect or am willing to read. In any case, if you want to read a fascinating, unusual, and seriously gritty fantasy series, Ash:_A_Secret_History is well worth reading.
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(10 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:May 3rd, 2012 12:19 am (UTC)
I somehow got through the first Martin novel in the series, and put it down thinking "Wow, 15 protagonists introduced and by the end we have two rat-bastards, one sort-of-hero, 10 dead, one paralyzed, and one sent off to be raped by NotGenghisKhan. Never, ever going to read another word by this author."

[User Picture]
Date:May 3rd, 2012 01:18 am (UTC)
I haven't read any of the Martin novels, but I watched the first episode of the Game of Thrones show, and was immediately turned off by how the women were basically sexual pawns, and the only seemingly strong female character was a young tomboy (why can't there ever be tough femmes who make there way by something other than their genitals?)
[User Picture]
Date:May 3rd, 2012 02:44 am (UTC)

musings on gritty SFF

In case you haven't seen this, "Dear Speculative Fiction, I'm Glad We Had This Talk", by the wonderful and talented Elizabet Bear.

[User Picture]
Date:May 3rd, 2012 07:15 am (UTC)

Re: musings on gritty SFF

I hadn't seen that, and it's impressively accurate.
[User Picture]
Date:May 3rd, 2012 01:12 pm (UTC)
I see what you're saying... I don't know, I just... assuming someone is setting out to write a world full of horrible suffering of all kinds, why wouldn't misogyny be one of those types of suffering? Might as well refuse to read it on account of all the murder, or all the lying, or (for goodness' sake) all the despair itself. I don't see why misogyny should get special treatment as the one type of suffering that is unbearable, when all of them are pretty unbearable.
[User Picture]
Date:May 4th, 2012 01:02 am (UTC)
The Books of Ash (and the few other novels I've read like it) contain misogyny, including rape, but it's never described in lurid detail, nor is any of the other violence and brutality. You get more detail about how the characters are cold and hungry as a near constant condition.

In addition to the fact that we now have an equation where modern gritty fantasy pretty much always includes extensive misogyny, which I loathe as a general assumption [[1]], I really dislike the fact that girtty fantasy now usually means having various atrocities described in great detail.

[[1]] One of the things I like most about the setting for the RPG Exalted, is while it's quite gritty and brutal for ordinary humans, assumptions about gender and sexuality are distinctly non-modern. There are regions with extensive misogyny, but the largest and most powerful nation is a matriarchy, where the Scarlet Empress insures that women have more high status opportunities than men, and in many other areas, gender-based social inequality is simply unknown, and people are sorted by other metrics like tribal membership.
[User Picture]
Date:May 3rd, 2012 04:54 pm (UTC)
One small minor nitpick because I care: ASH isn't a series, but a novel chopped up into four parts for its US publication.

ASH also starts with the protagonist offering herself (as a v. young girl, eight or so) to a soldier as a prostitute, which isn't quite rape but might not be all that nice to read about for those who might be triggered by such a scene.

Mary Gentle in general has never made bones about the brutality of the worlds she writes about, but has never had that sweaty palms feeling of some of her male counterparts, who are a bit too cheerful about showing you how nasty they could get. She knows any pre-modern setting is likely to be not very nice, but she never glorifies it.

I think Martin has been on the right side of being grim for the sake of it as well, especially considering that when he started on his series grimndark fantasy wasn't quite so overwhelming the book shelves yet. As a response to the likes of Jordan or Eddings it works better than now that it's just the standard bearer of an army of clones. What I personally like about aSoFaI is that it's a story about people consistently making the wrong choices, where even the heroes do appalling things in name of the greater good, without Martin approving of these atrocities. I like that the stubborn, unwielding, decent protagonist of the first book gets his head chopped off for these qualities, which would've stood him in good stead in other fantasy novels.

But that's just my own opinion and I can very understand you not wanting to bother with it anymore, judging that it flaws outweight its virtues.

[User Picture]
Date:May 4th, 2012 01:07 am (UTC)
I entirely agree about Ash. My point is that there's a whole lot less graphic detail in that scene or in any similar scenes than in Martin's work and his (all too) many imitators.

As I mention above, in Gentle's work, the careful details are focused on the conditions of everyday life, like being cold and hungry as a way of life (at least when out on a campaign), which provides a seriously gritty feel w/o making the work seem prurient or like the author has some serious psycho-sexual issues.
[User Picture]
Date:May 7th, 2012 05:56 am (UTC)
Yeah, I can actually imagine reasons to include graphic rape scenes in novels, but I think in such cases, the justification would be clear artistically, emotionally, and politically. I don't see that justification in Martin's book. It's basically a tale, plus gritty shitsucks porn. It's ugly, it feels gratuitous, and it doesn't address the questions it asks. I couldn't finish a single book of this series.

I've loved other things Martin has done. GoT seems like some of his lesser work, in so many ways. It's actually caused me to rethink how I evaluate him as a writer. His use of characters is thoughtless and self-indulgent, his approach to detail shades into amateurish, and then there's the above issues. So disappointing.

Edited at 2012-05-07 05:57 am (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:May 7th, 2012 05:10 pm (UTC)
Try Elizabeth Moon's Paksenarrion series if you're looking for gritty fantasy. Or anything else by her, for that matter. While rape, war, etc. are covered and her characters suffer hardships, Moon does not wallow in gratuitous gore, bigotry, or any other such nonsense. All her protagonists are strong and realistic women.

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